by David Moloney
A five year old’s birthday party at a Taekwondo school sounded like a bachelor party at an opera house. It didn’t make sense to me. I imagined kids clumsily kicking foam dolls, or throwing limp-wristed punches at padded walls, getting barked at by dudes in doboks until they collapsed in defeated tears. I didn’t imagine it was a place where a room of four- and five-year-olds would have barrels of fun.
There were twenty or so kids who attended. The school's Master told us to remove our children’s footwear upon entry. My daughter May ripped off her socks without hesitation and hurried over to the group. The kids sat on a blue mat and we parents were scattered throughout three rows of bleachers. The Master announced that we would have a day of fun and games in honor of Oliver, my nephew, the birthday boy.
The first game was dodge ball. I wondered how May would do with losing. May is dainty, cautious, and sweet. She would have been my first target in middle school gym class. The way the kids were so unsure of themselves made me remember the days of slinging the ball at the weaker kids first, the ones you knew would just stand still and frozen. I looked over the kids and I could instantly pick out the ones who would lose first, and the ones I would have hid behind early in the game.
Halfway through the game, a small boy lost and one of the instructors guided him off the mat. He cried. The parents in the bleachers exhaled a cohesive “awe” as he ran to his father. The instructors kept the music playing and the game going. The kids still in the game gave no attention to the boy crying. They played on, and no one else cried when they lost. The boy sat on his father’s lap and never rejoined the party.
May pirouetted her way around the bouncing ball. She twirled and skipped carelessly, as if she may not have even been part of the same game. She made it to the final four. When the ball finally found her, she walked off the mat smiling without searching me out in the bleachers.
There’s a growing concern among millennial parents about the absence of dodge ball in school. I’ve heard the argument that kids need to learn how to lose, that not everyone can be winner. My uncle Billy calls it the “pussification of America.” I’ve been entangled in this argument and I’ve championed the need for dodge ball, the need to “un-pussy” America. I’ve laughed in reminiscence about head-hunting the slower kids, the dainty kids, the kids like May.
The first thing my family mulled over at the after party was the dodge ball game and the crying boy. There was a collective praise from my siblings, my father, and my uncle Billy, about the way the crying boy was handled by the instructors.
“See how they didn’t even look at him?” my father asked. “That’s how you do it.”
This sort of praise was expected from my family. I am one of four children, and growing up, there was always a respected competitiveness amongst us. No one ever wanted to lose, even if the sport or spelling bee or game of flashlight tag didn’t include siblings. We always wanted to dominate. It came from the top down. My father wasn’t easy on us in games. He was notorious for the line, “I’ve never lost a game of (insert game here).” That included games against his children. He never let us win.
A string of snowy days the week after the party brought me to dusting off our Wii and setting it up for May. We sampled the games to find out which ones she was coordinated enough to play. She picked up Swordplay quickly, the game where two Mii’s battle on a platform with light saber type weapons until one gets knocked into the water below. May beat the A.I. fighters quite easily. Then, she challenged me to a duel.
Up until this point, our game-playing experience had been cooperative contests against a common enemy: get all the chickens back in the coup away from the hungry fox, build a rainbow so the Ponies can run underneath to a star dusted freedom. But now, I held the controller and stood against her.
May’s idea of trash talk was to make fun of my Mii’s ordinariness.
“Look at your eyes,” she said, “they don’t sparkle like mine.” She had insisted, when making her Mii, to have the eyes that were diamonds.
Best of three rounds, and without thinking I beat her round one. Her Mii fell into the water and she spun to me in disbelief. She yelled, “Daddy,” and in that moment I realized the position I’d put myself in.
She then told me she was going to kick my butt in genuine confidence.
The next round, May swung up and down a few dozen times and my Mii fell into the water. She cheered.
Round three I made sure to make May work for it. I blocked her wild slashes until her arms were tired and the swings became tiny chops. I brought myself close to the edge and May gave a final sweeping blow.
When you’re the one of the kids in gym class with a good arm and good hands, when you can flatten to the floor under a high throw, leap over a bouncing ball, you love dodge ball. You count down the minutes through math class until you can roll around and smash a red ball off kid’s foreheads.
When you’re a kid and you’ve lost hundreds of games of chess to your father, trying to out-maneuver him, figure out why you can’t beat him, and, then, finally win on one foggy morning in a camper at Lake Sebago, the victory stays with you like a proud scar.
But when you have the say on whether or not someone else wins or loses, when you control the outcome, the game changes. You’re a giant gripping the ball as swarms of easy-target little people run around your feet. You’re a teacher. You have knowledge of cause and lasting effect, of inevitable outcome.
As my Mii floated in the air with his normal-looking eyes, stayed suspended there for a moment, then plopped into the pixelated water below, I knew this first allowance of victory wouldn’t be my last. I’ll shelve the ball until she is ready to throw it back.
David Moloney is a current MFA candidate at Southern New Hampshire University's Low Residency Program in Fiction and Nonfiction.